US and Taliban officials have agreed in principle to the framework of a peace deal that could lead to US troop pullout from Afghanistan in return for a ceasefire and Taliban talks with Kabul, Zalmay Khalilzad tells the New York Times.

Taliban has in the past refused to negotiate directly with Kabul — a standing that does not appear to have changed.
Taliban has in the past refused to negotiate directly with Kabul — a standing that does not appear to have changed. (Reuters Archive)

The US peace envoy tasked with resolving America's longest war in Afghanistan told the The New York Times that American and Taliban officials have agreed in principle to the framework of a peace deal with the insurgents. 

The newspaper on Monday quoted US envoy Zalmay Khalilzad as saying the "framework deal, which still has to be fleshed out before it becomes an agreement," will see the Taliban commit to guaranteeing that Afghan territory is not used as a "platform for international terrorist groups or individuals."

The deal, the envoy said, could lead to full pullout of American troops in return for a ceasefire and Taliban talks with the Afghan government.

Afghanistan's President Ashraf Ghani (C) talks with the US  special envoy for peace in Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad (L), during a meeting in Kabul, Afghanistan on January 27, 2019.
Afghanistan's President Ashraf Ghani (C) talks with the US special envoy for peace in Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad (L), during a meeting in Kabul, Afghanistan on January 27, 2019. (Reuters)

No compromise in name of peace

Also on Monday, the Afghan president assured his people that their rights will not be compromised in the name of peace with the Taliban, days after the US envoy tasked with resolving America's longest war reported significant progress in talks with the Taliban.

President Ashraf Ghani, in turn, apparently tried to assure Afghans that no deals would be made without Kabul's awareness and full participation in negotiations.

"Our commitment is to provide peace and to prevent any possible disaster," Ghani said in his address to the nation on Monday.

"There are values that are not disputable, such as national unity, national sovereignty and territorial integrity."

Ghani and Khalilzad met late on Sunday in Kabul. 

In a statement, Ghani's office said on Monday that the US envoy shared details of his latest round of talks with the Taliban in Qatar.

 It quoted Khalilzad as saying he had discussed a ceasefire deal with the Taliban but that there was no progress on the issue.

Khalilzad and the US  Embassy in Kabul did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Taliban offensive

The Taliban fighters have been staging near-daily attacks targeting Afghan forces, causing scores of casualties every week.

Their offensive has not let up despite the severe Afghan winter and the Taliban now hold sway over nearly half of the country.

That has made peace an even more pressing issue.

Khalilzad met with the Taliban on a number of occasions in recent months — most recently last week in Qatar where the Taliban have a political office — in the latest bid to end America's longest war. 

The US invaded Afghanistan after the September 11, 2001 attacks to topple the Taliban, who were harbouring Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda.

Withdrawal of foreign troops 

Monday's statement from Ghani's office also claimed that the Taliban demanded from Khalilzad the withdrawal of all foreign troops from Afghanistan, but that there was also no agreement on that issue.

The statement added that Khalilzad has no authority to discuss issues such as a future Afghan administration but that his goal is to facilitate an intra-Afghan dialogue, meaning direct talks between the Taliban and Kabul.

On Saturday, after six days of meetings with the Taliban in Qatar, Khalilzad on his official twitter account said, "Meetings here were more productive than they have been in the past."

"We made significant progress on vital issues," he tweeted, without offering details.

Not a simple problem 

Abdul Hakim Mujahid, a former Taliban official and currently a member of the High Peace Council, an independent body of clerics and respected Afghan figures, said he believes the Qatar talks resulted in a "good understanding between both sides" but that more discussions are needed in the coming weeks or months.

"Afghanistan's problem is not so simple that it can be solved in a day, week or month, it needs more time and more discussions," Mujahid said. 

The Taliban has in the past refused to negotiate directly with Kabul — a standing that does not appear to have changed. 

It has maintained that it's prepared to talk with US officials only and only about the pullout of foreign forces from Afghanistan.

Ceasefire and withdrawal agreed?

Afghan political analyst Waheed Muzhda said he believes that Khalilzad and the Taliban have reached an agreement on both the withdrawal of US  forces from Afghanistan and a ceasefire deal, but that neither side is prepared to say so at this point.

"But peace talks are not possible unless both sides first agree on a ceasefire," Muzhda said.

Ghani, in Monday's address to the nation, also stressed that American and other foreign forces are in Afghanistan because they are needed here and that if there is to be any downsizing or pullout, the Kabul government will have to play a role in the talks.

Ghani also reiterated his call on the Taliban to engage "in direct talks with the Afghan government."

Taliban talks 'encouraging'

On Monday, acting US Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan said peace talks between the US and the Taliban were "encouraging."

"I'd say really the takeaway right now: it's encouraging," Shanahan told Pentagon reporters.

Source: AP